Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Some Typographical Considerations

I'm a little bit particular about formatting. When I edit someone else's document (or even, sometimes, when I'm just supposed to read it) I will go through and vigorously attack sloppy formatting. Here are some of the things that I just can't help fixing.


There are three types of dash: the hyphen (-), the n-dash (–), and the m-dash (—). Each has its specific uses and it bugs me when people don't use them when they should. The hyphen is used to separate syllables of a word at the end of a line in a document justified on both sides, when adding a prefix, when spelling or syllabifying a word, when creating compound modifiers, when creating double-barreled names (see that? I used a hyphen there), for spelling out two-word names of numbers (like twenty-three), and for identification numbers (e.g. compound GA-391-6, telephone numbers, SSNs, etc.).[1] Keyboards have a button for this one, usually at the top right between the 0 key and the = key.

The n-dash is used to separate numbers or dates in a range (e.g. pp. 51–54 or August–October 2003), for associating two things (e.g. a flight from L.A. to New York would be the L.A.–New York flight [2]), or for creating compound adjectives that have spaces or hyphens in them (e.g. non–tongue-in-cheek).[3] It is similar to the minus sign (−), but is most easily distinguished by the presence or absence of spaces before and after the symbol (thus 8–12 is a range while 12 − 8 is subtraction). You can create it in html by typing – without spaces on either side. You can create it in MS Word by typing a space then a hyphen then a space ( - ).[4] You can create it on a PC by holding down Alt and typing 0150 on the number pad. You can create it on a Mac by hitting option and -.

The m-dash is used to set apart a parenthetical thought—like this one—or to indicate aposiopesis [5] or interruption.[6] I cringe—cringe!—every time I see someone use a double-hyphen (--) instead. Cringe! You can create it in html by typing — without spaces on either side. You can create it in MS word by typing the double-hyphen. You can create it on a PC by holding down Alt and typing 0151 on the number pad. You can create it on a Mac by hitting option, shift, and -.[7]


The ellipsis (…) is used to indicate when part of an original quote has been omitted or to indicate silence in speech (such as a pause or aposiopesis).[8] When quoting other sources, the ellipsis should be used sparingly because it can be used to alter the original statement or mislead the reader. Because the original source could also contain ellipses, it is helpful to distinguish your inserted ellipsis by encasing it in brackets, like this: […]. The use of ellipses for thought pauses are often overused by teenage girls and comic book writers and can become rather annoying, so this usage should also be carefully limited. If it can be replaced with a period, then it usually should be.

There is a lot of disagreement about how the ellipsis should be used. Some prefer three periods (...) while others separate the periods with spaces (. . .); this can be obviated by using the ellipsis glyph (…), which has spacing somewhere in between. Whether to have spaces before and after the ellipsis is an even more complex issue [9], but I prefer no spaces ever. If an ellipsis occurs at the end of a sentence, it should be followed by normal punctuation (e.g. …! or …. or …?). You can create it in html by typing … without spaces on either side. You can create it in MS word by typing three periods. You can create it on a PC by holding down Alt and typing 0133 on the number pad. You can create it on a Mac by hitting option and ;.

Double spaces after sentences

During the days of typesetting, having a single space after your sentence came to be called French spacing; having two spaces after your sentence was called English spacing.[10] Even with French spacing, the space between sentences was made a little larger than the space between words, but wasn't as large as the two spaces of English spacing. With the advent of typewriters English spacing came to prominence because the makers of typewriters didn't want to put an extra key on the machine for between-sentence spacing. Now we have computers and the need for a double space at the end of a sentence (or after a colon, for that matter) is unnecessary. The computer is automatically able to adjust spaces after sentences through a process called kerning (see below). So in reality those who double space after sentences are adding more space than conventional English spacing.[11] Most of us were taught to do it either because we originally learned to type on a typewriter (like me) or we were taught by someone who did (like Leann). But practically no one uses a typewriter anymore, so it's time to stop using English spacing.

Smart Quotes

Again, because it saved space on a typewriter keyboard, the use of vertical quotes (like "these" and 'these') and apostrophes (like in can't) has become common. When typing in MS Word they're automatically corrected to smart quotes (like “these” and ‘these’) and apostrophes (like in can’t).[12] Even though most font faces have glyphs for smart quotes, it hasn't been incorporated into web standard, yet. So even though I prefer smart quotes, it's too much work to insert them into a long web document (like this one), so I begrudgingly settle for vertical quotes and apostrophes. When dealing with a document, I use the search and replace function to fix them all.[13] You can create them in html by typing ‘ (opening single quotes), ’ (closing single quotes or apostrophes), “ (opening double quotes), or ” (closing double quotes) without spaces on either side. You can create it on a PC by holding down Alt and typing 0145 (opening single quotes); 0146 (closing single quotes or apostrophes); 0147 (opening double quotes); or 0148 (closing double quotes) on the number pad. You can create them on a Mac by hitting option and ] (opening single quotes); option, shift, and ] (closing single quotes or apostrophes), option and [ (opening double quotes), or option, shift, and [ (closing double quotes).


Okay. This one isn't actually formatting that I fix in someone else's document. But it is worth knowing about. Kerning is the process where you adjust the separation between characters to that they run together in a more pleasing manner. The best example of this is the capital letters AV (see example to the right). Without kerning the spacing between the two letters is determined by the bottom right side of the A and the top left side of the V, thus a huge gap is left between the two letters. With kerning, the two letters are allowed to sit more closely together, so that their spacing resembles the spacing of most other letters.[14]


[2] The n-dash helps us distinguish that a Bose–Einstein condensate is a state of matter predicted by two people (Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein), while the Leonard-Jones potential is a mathematical model described by one person with a hyphenated last name (John Lennard-Jones).

[4] Unfortunately it leaves the spaces on both sides so you have to go back and delete those. Grrr.

[5] Aposiopesis is ending a sentence before it's finished because of an unwillingness or inability to continue, thus leaving the rest of the sentence to the imagination of the listener(s). A good example of aposiopesis is Doctrine and Covenants 19:18.

[7] And now that you know, please don't ever make me cringe again.

[11] i.e. the computer creates a French space and then you, the typist, add another word space. Not only does this create white "rivers" through the page, there is also some evidence that writing with double-spaced sentences slows readers down. See spacing at the end of sentences#Effects on readability and legibility.

[12] Obviously if the curvy ones are "smart quotes" then the vertical ones must be "dumb quotes". Just think about that.

[13] Note, however, that there are some instances which are replaced incorrectly. For example it should convert 'em to ’em but instead it converts it to ‘em. So that has to be fixed manually. Also, it converts —" to —“ instead of —” at the end of a sentence. This also has to be fixed manually.

[14] You can turn on kerning in MS Word 2007 for Windows by going to the Home tab, clicking on the arrow to the right of the Font group (it looks like a tiny arrow pointing down and to the right), choosing the character spacing tab, and checking the box for kerning. I recommend using kerning for fonts that are 12 pt and above.

Image attributions:

Movable type is by Willi Heidelbach, available at movable type edit.jpg.

Kerning example is by Karakal, available at


  1. I'm guilty of a few of these...and perhaps have inspired this in part--but my poor sleep-deprived brain (and time-deprived life) simply refuses to think about formatting any more than it has to. When I'm typing I'm just tryin' to get done.

  2. Note that HTML ellipsis is also &hellip; (…) as well as &#8230; (…), and that standards-compliant browsers (not IE) use the <q> tag to insert smart quotes that nest properly, though that doesn't help for the apostrophe.

  3. @Rachel

    No, you didn't help inspire this post.


    I was unaware of the <q> tag. Good to know.